Following the Kurdish independence referendum held in Iraq on the 25th of September, many in the region awoke to a new geopolitical reality following the vote, with the increasing likelihood of an independent Kurdish state. The referendum resulted in a landslide victory of over 90% for those in favour of the Kurdish Regional Government declaring independence from Iraq.
In an already fractured and divided region, the possibility of a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq has united the responses of regional rivals who would not usually have much to agree on.
Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and even the United States have all either opposed or questioned the timing of this referendum, which comes at a time when Iraq is reeling from instability caused by the ongoing war with ISIS.
With that said, while the vote did not immediately trigger a secession from Iraq, due to bureaucracy as with Brexit, it has however had a wider regional impact. This is due to the nearly 30 million Kurds who inhabit the neighbouring states of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, all of which share a dream of an independent Kurdish state.
The Kurds, who have long been marginalized in the region since the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, are the largest ethnic group without a state. Given their mistreatment under successive regimes in Iraq, as well as neighbouring states, it is not surprising that they take nationalism and belief in independence to heart.
While the Kurds in Iraq already have a semi-autonomous government, it seeks to break the bond with a weak and sectarian central government in Baghdad, who is seen as both corrupt and inefficient. The referendum should not be so easily painted in black and white, however, as there are a number of both internal and external complications.
First, not all Kurds within Iraq support the referendum, as some perceive it as a distraction from the mismanagement and corruption within the Kurdish regional government, which is $20 billion in debt due to falling oil prices.
This distrust in the political establishment by many Kurds threatens the unity that the referendum promises. While others fear a fallout in relations with the central government in Baghdad, which has declared the referendum unconstitutional and a threat to Iraqi sovereignty.
Secondly, the referendum has stirred regional powers to take action against the Kurdish regional government and may further stoke the fires of ethnic tensions across Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Second, only to Iraq, Turkey provides the greatest voice of opposition to the referendum and has been trying to stamp out a Kurdish insurgency of its own over the last three decades.
Within the last week, Turkey has extended its deployment of forces in Iraq and Syria, in large part due to the referendum, which it sees as a threat to regional stability, while Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have banned all flights to the Kurdish region in Iraq in protest of the vote. Thus, while a full-out military intervention by external powers is unlikely, it should not be ruled out.
Nonetheless, the predicted reaction of Baghdad should not be underestimated, as after having recaptured most of its lost territory from ISIS, any threat to national unity will unlikely be tolerated. Particularly when the Kurdish regions are as oil-rich as they are, it is in the interests of the economic security of Iraq to preserve these regions under Baghdad’s influence.
Finally, since the wave of Nasser’s Pan-Arab vision in the 1960’s, the one political feature that is much needed in the region is political unity rather than division. While it is absolutely true that the Kurdish people have suffered at the hands of many over the last century, a divisive referendum at such a tenuous time is not the solution.
Furthermore, should it be the inherent right of all ethnic groups who have a rich history to vote on secession, then what is Iraq to make of its Turkmen, Yazidis, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and countless other groups?
To an extent, the many ethno-religious tensions within Iraq stem from the colonial construct that is the very state itself which had so inconsiderably grouped many numbers of diverse peoples, such as in the case of Lebanon, Syria, and in a multitude of African states.
However, further division through this referendum is not the answer, nor is it worth giving Istanbul and Tehran an excuse to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs.
As such, should the Kurdish regional government decide to pursue a path of secession from Iraq, then it is likely to face opposition both inside and outside of Iraq, and the threat of a new conflict in the region will be ever more present. For now though, it seems that the Kurdish regional government is set to face the political backlash of the vote from its neighbours while it deliberates its next move in the calm before the storm.